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Outdoors: Niagara River lake trout need respect

If a lake trout belted out a tune in a local karaoke bar (the Niagara?), it would undoubtedly be Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T. These char are deserving of a much better reputation throughout the Great Lakes Basin. However, lake trout in the Niagara River and off the mouth at the Niagara Bar is an entirely different fish – especially when the season re-opens on January 1, 2018.

Lake trout once prowled these Lake Ontario waters with an attitude, a native species that was highly regarded among fishing circles, as well as sought after among commercial operations. However, when native lake trout were wiped out from the system, they were replaced with stocked fish (current target is 400,000 fish annually from the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, Pa.) with the intention of creating a self-sustaining population through natural reproduction once again. Charged with this responsibility is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for the entire Great Lakes. With one Great Lake out of the way (Lake Superior is now deemed a success), the agency now has four to go.

The local office of USFWS is the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, based out of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Basom. Lake trout research is led by fisheries biologist Dr. Dimitry Gorsky and the office is taking a few leaps forward in their quest to collect as much data as possible about lake trout in Lake Ontario – taking a page out of a science fiction novel with some recent high tech innovations. It is some very exciting stuff. Not everything has been effective though.

Ever since USFWS documented natural reproduction of lake trout in the Lower Niagara River in 2011 – the first documented spawning success in a river system since spawning was documented in the early 1950s in eastern Lake Superior in the Dog and Montreal rivers – it seems like the agency has upped its game so to speak as far as answering its charge.

In 2013, Gorsky and company managed to outfit 72 lake trout with floy tags in an attempt to monitor fish movement the old fashioned way. It started by catching these fish one at a time with rod and reel on the famed Niagara Bar area – the outflow of the Niagara River near Fort Niagara. Each fish received a floy tag and was released unharmed, caught during the closed season after being given a special exemption from DEC (the season is closed in New York from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31). Then it was up to the fishermen to catch the tagged fish and report back to USFWS. That didn’t work as not one tag was recovered.

Which takes us back to the H.G. Wells-type of technology: According to Gorsky, some thrilling things are underway and he can’t wait for the research to start paying back some dividends in research benefits.

In 2014, Gorsky implemented a program using Modular Pop-Up Satellite Tags to help give them more detailed information about the temperatures and depths that these fish hang out in, as well as specific locations by recording the magnetic pull of the Earth for latitude and longitude. The focus was on the entire lake – wherever these tags would take them.

That didn’t work either. They only recovered half of the pop-up tags (a total of 18 were deployed) and half of those encountered data recovery problems. The company is still working on retrieving data.

In 2015, USFWS took another leap into the future by conforming to the acoustic technology that is already in place with the help of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and several fisheries agencies from Canada. A total of 10 female lake trout were tagged in November of 2015 and 10 female lake trout were tagged in November of 2016. The tag, inserted inside the cavity of the fish, sends off a signal that transmits to bottom-based receivers in the Western and Eastern basins of the lake. Roughly 80 of those receivers are currently in place. More should be coming.

“This new data could be invaluable. There is so much more that we need to understand with lake trout such as where they spawn, how they interact with other species of fish in the lake and what role invasive species plays on natural reproduction of these native fish. I’m very excited to be able to apply this technology to lake trout.”

“We are still trying to understand how gobies fit into the picture,” says Gorsky. “They could be a very important food source for lake trout … much better than alewives because they lack the presence of thiaminase, an enzyme that breaks down Thiamine and has shown to limit natural reproduction by causing early mortality in lake trout offspring. However, gobies are also devouring eggs and fry as a food source.”

Lake Ontario is starting to gain some momentum. With three years of spawning data (Gorsky will collect data from this past fall in the spring of 2018), every piece of information they collect will help solve the lake trout puzzle. The acoustic study will continue through 2020. The most exciting thing is that the fish Gorsky discovered in 2011-12 in the lower Niagara as being naturally reproduced are now adults and contributing to the fishery. If you catch a lake trout with the adipose fin intact and the other fins are also attached, those are fish that have made it to adults. Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Youngstown, who assisted with the project by helping to catch the fish, actually caught one of those naturalized lake trout this fall. We have something special going on. If you catch one of the tagged lakers, please release it so that biologists can continue to monitor the 20 fish.

It is time to revisit the current regulations as they pertain to lake trout, too. The season is open all year in Lake Erie, but only one fish per person is allowed. In Lake Ontario, two lake trout is in addition to a three-fish salmon and trout limit – except for the Lower Niagara River. The Lower River has a three fish salmon and trout limit, period. Lake trout is included. No more than two can be lake trout. There’s probably enough support to make it just one. There’s also room to make a catch and release season (at the very least in the Lower River out to the green buoy) in the fall and early winter. The season on the Canadian side of the river opens on Dec. 1 (and they don’t stock any fish in the river).

Let’s celebrate the fact that the Niagara River below Niagara Falls is one of the few places on Earth that shore fishermen can cast a fly, spoon, spinner or egg sac and actually catch one of these magnificent fish. It would help draw attention to this resource and educate anglers to the unique aspects of these hallowed waters.

The bottom line here is that lake trout are finally getting some of the respect they deserve. Aretha Franklin would be proud!


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